There is a perceived step down in difficulty for Celtic this week in facing up to a faltering Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Like Celtic, the German giants know what it is to suffer at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain’s £400 million strikeforce.
The French side’s forward line of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe is now being talked about as the best attacking trident in club football. But Bayern are also entitled to indulge in a sport of name dropping. After all, the German champions can boast, what Celtic defender Mikael Lustig this week called “the world’s best No.9”, in Robert Lewandowski. Arjen Robben, meanwhile, is a winger who can still be ranked among the best in that position from any age.
The list goes on – and on, frankly – with Thomas Muller, Thiago, Arturo Vidal and Kingsley Coman all likely to line-up against Brendan Rodgers’ men in Wednesday’s Group B encounter at the Allianz Arena. As Celtic seek to do the extraordinary and build on their outstanding 3-0 success away to Anderlecht last month, their only points of relief are that goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and winger Franck Ribery will miss out with injury.
Rodgers accepts that Bayern would probably receive a “boost” in having turned again to manager Jupp Heynckes for a fourth time following the decision to sack Carlos Ancelotti. The change came after a 3-0 thumping by PSG which sandwiched 2-2 draws in the Bundesliga that saw the Munich club twice surrender 2-0 leads.
That offers hope to Rodgers, who is invigorated not just by the prospect of a first visit to the Allianz but the chance to encounter Robben once more. The 33-year-old this week retired from international football, signing off after 96 caps for Holland with a double against Sweden that could not prevent his country missing out on the World Cup.
Rodgers is a man whose judgments of players always takes in the personal as well the professional. His time as reserve team manager at Chelsea gave him a profound insight into a Robben, whose going to ground easily – as it is euphemistically called – has never endeared him to the general populace. The winger has claimed 23 trophies in being a driving force for PSV, Chelsea, Real Madrid and now Bayern, and was instrumental in the Dutch reaching the World Cup final of 2010 and the semi-final four years later.
Rodgers remembers him for very different reasons. A friendly in August 2011 against a sixth tier English club for starters. And a youth tournament in May 2005 for afters.
“Arjen Robben I know very, very well,” the Celtic manager said. “Firstly as a player, what a player he was. When I worked with him at Chelsea, he was an amazing player. And as a man, he was a great man. People won’t know, but his last game for Chelsea was against Hampton and Richmond.
“If Carlsberg did reserve teams I had the best reserve team in the world there. It was in the sort of window, we needed a game and as you can imagine had a lot of players there at the time. And I couldn’t get a team, there was just no-one to play there at the time. I said to Jose [Mourinho] the only teams I can get in are two part-time teams. One was called Hampton and Richmond, who were managed by Alan Devonshire, a great player for West Ham, and we had played them a couple of times. I said, they’ll come. And Staines.
“What you find with a lot of the European boys is that it doesn’t matter what shirt it is they just want a game. So it was a chase between those, and Dev came back to me within half an hour and said: ‘I’ll take the team up there’. So we looked after them.
“I had [Carlo] Cudicini in goal, Juliano Belletti at right back, who had won the Champions League with Barcelona. I had Alex at centre-half, and I had a young boy, [Jeffrey] Bruma beside him. [Patrick] van Aanholt, John Mikel Obi. Scotty Sinclair on the left side, [Claudio] Pizarro and Arjen on the right. We won 7-0, [Robben] was captain and scored. The next day he went to Real Madrid. So that tells you about the mentality of him, and the player he was; he was an unbelievable player.
“The second story tells you about him as a person. I was taking the first ever Chelsea youth team over to the Milk Cup [a prestigious youth tournament held in Northern Ireland] and it was at the end of the season. He was a Premier League winner, and had gone off and was on his holidays. And I needed to take a couple of players with me over to Northern Ireland for the opening. It was a function that was on at the Waterfront in Belfast, The Odyssey. I needed to take two players, so I asked one, Mikael Forssell, he was a good guy, a great player. He had a terrible time with injury, but he was a big talent. Mikael said he would go. The other one was going to be a push, but I got on really well with him, and that was Arjen Robben.
“Now, this time Arjen was back home, it was off season, he was in Groningen, and I’m asking him to get to Heathrow for a nine o’clock flight to Belfast. So he got the train from Groningen right the way down to Schiphol, and then flew into Heathrow in time for us to be on a nine o’clock flight to Belfast. What an effort that is. God knows what time in the morning he would need to get up.
“But he came over, and was fresh as a daisy, ‘Morning Brendan’. And this was a guy who had hardly any summers, any days free, since he was 17 through playing for the international team. But absolutely amazing for him to come all the way and meet all the people there. So a great, great player, but a brilliant fella.”
This week Jamie Carragher presented Robben as a player who the game’s taste-arbiters haven’t allowed their palates to appreciate as they might. Rodgers would fully concur.
“He’s a great example of using your strengths,” said the Celtic manager. “Everyone used to say he didn’t use his right foot but his left foot’s the best in the world. And still doing it now, you see his goal the other night.
“In this cycle, in this period, he is world class. You think of the teams, Chelsea, went on to Real Madrid. Bayern Munich everything he has done there, then no question. He is just a phenomenal talent. At what, 33, he still has the feint, that body swerve with which he comes inside and normally sticks it into the top corner.
“He is super fast. His bodyframe for a winger is well set, he is really robust. You see his body shape, you see his legs, but his travelling with the ball... He is one of those guys who is equally as quick with the ball as he is without it. He has an unbelievable skill and ability to throw a feint in as he is going. A lot of the time you know what he is going to do – to chop inside but his second touch is so explosive it sets him up for a shot. It is hard to compare players in terms of speed but once he is away, he is away, he is so fast.”